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Ukraine's Vitali Klitschko: 'The People Intend to Fight'

Interview Conducted By and Erich Follath

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko holds a Ph.D. in sports science, a boxing world heavyweight title, a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament and the top spot in opposition party UDAR, the Ukrainian word for "punch." Zoom
Yuri Kozyrev/ Noor/ DER SPIEGEL

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko holds a Ph.D. in sports science, a boxing world heavyweight title, a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament and the top spot in opposition party UDAR, the Ukrainian word for "punch."

Part 2: 'Every Country Needs Good Relations With Its Neighbors'

SPIEGEL: What would relations to Russia be like under a President Vitali Klitschko?

Klitschko: Every country needs good relations with its neighbors. This also holds true for Russia, one of our largest trading partners. At the same time, Ukraine has to pursue its national interests. Both sides should benefit from good neighborly relations -- and this means that they have to respect each other.

SPIEGEL: Vladimir Putin once said that Ukraine was not a proper state.

Klitschko: Our neighbors to the east regrettably view the issue of EU integration exclusively from a geopolitical standpoint. But that's not the point: We are not fighting against anyone. We are choosing a road to development for our country. Unfortunately many people in Moscow still view Ukraine as "their zone" -- as part of the Russian sphere of influence. They don't understand that it would also be better for them to have a Ukraine that is a strong neighbor, with a strong economy. A Russian expansion at Ukraine's expense is impossible.

SPIEGEL: Putin says that the EU -- not Russia -- is actually intervening in Ukraine. Aren't all sides trying to make Ukraine into their sphere of influence?

Klitschko: We negotiate with Europe as equals; Russia looks down at us. The EU makes us offers; Russia wants to impose its will on us.

SPIEGEL: If you could speak with the Russian president in the current situation, what would you say to him?

Klitschko: I know him; we've already met. If we were to meet now, then it would be a very long conversation, and not one between a lord and his subject. Instead, it would be between equals.

SPIEGEL: Would you tell him that you are striving over the long term for Ukraine to enter the EU?

Klitschko: The answer is obvious. Just look at the countries that have oriented themselves toward Europe, and those that haven't. In the former East Bloc countries we all had similar starting conditions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today we see the progress made by countries that have elected to take the European route. They have a high standard of living, better infrastructure, and civil rights are respected. This is the only way for us.

SPIEGEL: Russia is also concerned about Ukraine forming a military alliance with the West. Do you seriously believe that you can lead your country into NATO?

Klitschko: The Russians are currently collaborating much more closely with NATO than we are, for example, in the fight against terror and in Afghanistan. We cannot afford to divide the world into good and evil, as it was during the Cold War era. Russia's reservations toward an alliance are a distant echo of Soviet propaganda. For young Russians, though, NATO is no longer a specter -- nor is it for Ukrainians.

SPIEGEL: Is Poland your model?

Klitschko: Yes, we have a great deal in common. Our countries are comparable in terms of population size and mentality. There are historical commonalities. Soviet influence has left its mark on both states. You can see the extent to which our neighbors have outpaced us just by the number of Ukrainians who now find work in Poland.

SPIEGEL: How do you intend to resolve the dramatic economic crisis?

Klitschko: The economic problems are a consequence of failed policies. There is no competition; Ukraine is a country of monopolies. We have 28 different types of taxes. They are weighing down small and medium-sized companies, which form the backbone of the economy in every normal country. We want to simplify the tax laws and fight the underground economy. Other countries have already taken this route before us, Georgia in fact just recently. If we lay down clear ground rules for companies, investors will also come and create jobs.

SPIEGEL: That doesn't sound very convincing. But even if it succeeds, it doesn't wipe out your country's billions in debt. And how do you intend to break the supremacy of the oligarchs?

Klitschko: I know all of the oligarchs. From conversations with them I know that they are extremely concerned about their assets. They want reforms because they need regulations and legal safeguards.

SPIEGEL: How long can the demonstrators on the Maidan hold out? How long do you intend to continue to send them onto the streets in snow and freezing temperatures?

Klitschko: One thing is clear: These people haven't gone to the Maidan because of Klitschko or any other politician. They are demonstrating for their civil rights. We are committed to representing their interests. If I can't meet their expectations, they will turn to another politician.

SPIEGEL: How will Yanukovych react if new barricades are built and old ones are defended?

Klitschko: I am concerned that the president will again attempt to resolve the situation with violence, just like last Monday. First, he talked about a roundtable, then at night he sent in the police. The government is not really interested in compromises. And as long as it takes this attitude, we cannot offer any, either.

SPIEGEL: What means do you still have at your disposal to pressure Yanukovych to back down?

Klitschko: The most effective means are the people who take to the streets. History has taught us that things end badly for presidents who don't listen to their people.

SPIEGEL: The United States is considering economic sanctions.

Klitschko: If Yanukovych decides to quell peaceful demonstrations, sanctions will be necessary.

SPIEGEL: Do you still see jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko as a rival for the office of president?

Klitschko: In order to stand for election, Ms. Tymoshenko first has to be released. We are expressly demanding this. What we need, though, is a united opposition. The Yanukovych camp has vast financial resources and media power. The opposition only has a chance of success if it now rallies its forces around one individual who can beat Yanukovych.

SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes regret that you gave up your comfortable life as a sports star?

Klitschko: From time to time, when my 11-year-old daughter cries and asks, "Dad, when will you have time to play again?" My wife and I try to explain to her that Dad has to do something for our country -- something very important.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Klitschko, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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1. optional
spon-facebook-10000061525 12/16/2013
This man deserves to be president of Ukraine. If he will succeed, it remains to be seen
2. Ukraine
jrmichaluk 12/21/2013
European Countries will have to do more to support Ukraine. With Russian threats and bullying it is very hard to establish a true democracy in Ukraine.
3. Ukraine and Europe
jrmichaluk 12/21/2013
Europe must look at the long term with Ukraine. With Ukraine in the EU camp then Europe will be a lot stronger down the road. This is not a short term goal. It makes more sense to have Ukraine in the EU than countries such as Romania and Bulgaria who have major problems with corruption. The EU will be more stable and secure with Ukraine. The EU must support Ukraine Fully and bide time Until the new generation of Leaders that were born after 1991 take over. EU must support them and they must not send mixed messages to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.
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